Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
12 May

Dogs Teach Tricks, Too

Ever watch dogs at play, carefree? Next time you go on an off-leash hike with a canine, or even just a walk around the neighborhood, watch how they just jog along. Assuming they aren’t in pursuit of cat, squirrel, or pedestrian, it’s an easy trot, an effortless series of flicks of the ankle joints. It’s smooth, and their heads and shoulders stay mostly level with the ground. No off balanced dipping or stumbling. Oh, sure, the composure goes out the window when a frisbee’s let fly and they tear off after it, tongue flapping and fur rustling and muscles pumping, but to watch a calm, curious off-leash dog trot around, checking out the surroundings, sniffing, and just taking it all in is to watch an animal at total, complete ease in his own (furry) skin. We can learn a lot from watching dogs, as I have from my own Yellow Lab, Buddha.

The thing about dogs is they’re always waiting for you to do something. They tend to dote. Good dogs do this, anyway. Loyal, selfless, and always eager to please, a good dog will watch your every move, or at least be ever aware of your position in their general vicinity. Dogs are a strange mix of wild animal and family member. They think they’re people, basically.

That makes it hard to watch a dog just be a dog. It certainly can’t be done inside a house or apartment, and even a big backyard isn’t ideal. You’ve got to get the dog outside, in its natural, ancestral setting, with earth and foliage and wildlife and millions of smells, sights, and sounds, if you truly wish to observe a dog being a dog, free and uninhibited. We run Buddha on the beach or on trails near our house. Dog parks are another option. Because when you watch a dog, you’re essentially looking at a wolf playing a domesticated family pet. That dog may be man’s best friend, but he also yearns to run free through field and fen from time to time. Don’t believe me? Take your dog out to the wild for a day or three. See how he responds. He’ll still listen to you, of course, but he’s going to be a different, happier, wilder dog than you remembered.

At PrimalCon, Barefoot Ted’s talk touched on what we can learn from watching dogs at play. Ted noted that an effective visual cue for learning how to move without shoes across a landscape (any landscape, really) is to watch how a dog moves in the wild. The signature trot, the casual ankle flicks, the strong upright muzzle, the propensity to stop and smell pretty much anything and everything – he made the point that this mode of moving fractally, in spurts and with random, haphazard pace and smooth cadence, is most natural for a terrestrial mammal like ourselves and the dog. Grace and chaos. Quality and variety of movements. The dog’ll just as soon sprint after a mysterious rustle in the bushes (lizard, maybe) as he’ll stop on a dime and piss to mark his territory. He might investigate a previous dog’s droppings, pounce on a beetle scuttling across the trail, then get spooked by an ornery bluejay and hightail it out of there. For every mile you walk, they go three, weaving across the trail from side to side, running ahead of you and then behind you, clambering up hills and then back down. And they always return to the trot, that endless, eternal trot – until they sense something else that grabs their attention, and off they go. We could learn a lot from them.

Nassim Taleb talks about this stuff in “Why I Do All This Walking, or How Systems Become Fragile,” (PDF) his essay extolling the virtues (and necessity) of randomness in our lives. Steady regimented exercise and three square meals a day aren’t necessary, and they aren’t even “normal” in evolutionary terms; they are in direct opposition to our fractal, irregular natures. Like the dog (or the cat, or the rat, or any animal out there with some semblance of a brain – I’m not talking about ants or other grubby drones), we are creatures of the wild, of nature. And though there exist underlying laws that govern the way the world works, they are cloaked in randomness. You could slap a matrix of physics equations onto the ocean’s currents and technically explain it away (on paper), but taken as a whole, the physical world remains a playground of randomized events. To the animals living and participating in its grandeur, nature simply is. It is wild and it is something new every day, and we must respond.

The ideal healthy human heart beat itself is fractal, and disrupting this tendency – as does cigarette smoking (PDF) – increases the risk of heart attack. And yet those with metronomic heart beats thrive under extreme stress and duress, as Brent Pottenger discussed in a blog post, even as they suffer from early heart disease. Normal human gait is also fractal. There appears to be a connection between gait and heart beat. Perhaps the unnatural rhythm of Chronic Cardio affecting the heart rate can explain the increased susceptibility of marathoners to congestive heart failure.

Men and women who jog along paved suburban streets at a steady heart rate could virtually do it blindfolded. This isn’t normal, though. It’s entirely novel to our organism. We were once those animals living something new every day, reacting and responding to what nature threw at us. We rarely, if ever, traversed flat, even paths. There were trees and slopes to climb and sharp rocks and pointed roots to avoid. Check out that persistence hunting video that’s made the rounds before; they’re running, walking, stalking, and moving fractally, rather than maintaining a steady pace for hours. It’s not quite as random as the dog’s movements and inclinations, but it’s similar. We may not have to avoid obstacles and watch our steps anymore, but we should walk, run, hike, jog, and climb as if we do – even if that means hopping around on the street and varying our speed and mode of travel (sprinting, then slowing, then jogging, then sprinting, then crawling, and so on) like a crazy person.

Do not run long, boring, high-intensity Chronic Cardio (but you already knew that).

Instead, incorporate fractals into your fitness.


Run sprints.

Run hills.

Walk around a lot at a slow pace, and maybe throw in the occasional sprint or Grok crawl.

Go on a hike.

Get out into nature.

Explore your local urban environment.

Vary the speed and mode of movement, but maintain the quality of your performance. Don’t get sloppy. Relax. Have fun. Play! And if you ever need any more ideas for incorporating fractals into your movements, bring a dog, remove his leash, and watch what he does.

Share your thoughts on canine coaching and fractal movement in the comment board, and thanks for reading!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. And many thanks for introducing me to Naseem Taleb.

    sangita wrote on May 13th, 2010
  2. as if i wasn’t already won over, but now you’ve hit me over the fence. my 6 year old pitbull’s name is Buddha and we play almost everyday. our favorite outdoor fun is the beach/rock/hills which are 5 minutes from the front door. thanks for the post and showing/sharing variety of avenues to keep the movement primal.
    ps. just went on a 6.5 hour walk/hike/climb with a friend yesterday around the north coast of our island.

    Gregory wrote on May 13th, 2010
  3. A black swan event hit my family two months ago in the shape of an Australian Shepherd pup.

    Fractical is a good portmanteau, Epistemocrat. This dog has reeducated me about fitness and movement, particularly when making it integral with a busy everyday life.

    My wife and I both feel lighter in all senses running and walking and playing with the dog. That ankle-flick trotting observation is so true, the default from which flows running through all gears up to full on non-linear short sprint bursts.

    Truly exhilarating is the feeling when you realize that rather than walking the dog you are in fact listening to each other in a dialogue that is ever-changing and always fresh.

    I am empirically convinced that fractal running and not weight-training is where it’s at.

    Dunc wrote on May 13th, 2010
  4. Dogs Grock! They also love raw turkey necks a few times a week. Mark, Thanks for opening my eyes with this great post. I am learning from my 2 big greyhounds and one little hot-dog every day. We walk and run with them every morning for 30-40 minutes. They love every minute of it and so do we. The Primal Blueprint is a great lifestyle/philosophy that is not only logical but really works. Thanks again Mark!

    Jon wrote on May 13th, 2010
  5. Mark,
    While I’ve loved every post I’ve read so far, this is by far my favorite. I adore how you equate every thing to nature and animals (since we too are animals).
    Thank you so much for this site and your book.

    Kunoy wrote on May 13th, 2010
  6. I’ve made it a point to stop running with headphones and an iPod in the last few months. I suppose half the point is to distract yourself from the monotony and discomfort of running. I’ve since realized, that running doesn’t have to be boring and painful – we just have to change how and where we run.

    Dave C. wrote on May 13th, 2010
  7. Excellent post! It brings together my two favorite topics: dogs and fitness :)

    Angela N wrote on May 13th, 2010
    • Whoops, hit the Submit button by accident…

      I originally stumbled upon Paleo/Primal/Evolutionary Nutrition because I was researching species-appropriate diets for dogs. After reading about that, I wondered why I was thinking of feeding my dogs better and more appropriately than myself! One thing led to another, and within a week of finding MDA and some other big Paleo/Primal sites, I made the switch. I fully support feeding all creatures what they evolved eating, not just what they will tolerate and survive on.

      Mark, maybe you could devote a post to biologically-appropriate diets for pets sometime? I’m sure a number of people here (judging from the comments) could point you to some really excellent resources!

      Angela N wrote on May 13th, 2010
      • I just got a Corgi puppy last month. I already decided I wanted him to eat primal with me. So I looked around the net & is a good place to start. There’s also a raw fed group on Yahoo that is full of information. I haven’t been able to acquire all the stuff to get him 100% raw yet, but I have found a good source for bones & organs from organically raised animals. The little guy went CRAZY for goat liver! A good pet supply store (not the big box type) will also carry grain-free options. If you “rummage” around on the forums, you’ll find some posts from other primal pet parents. Anyhoo, I’m feeding my guy 100% grain free with fish oil supplements. I also shy away from fruits & veg as canines are carnivores.

        peggy wrote on May 15th, 2010
  8. Basically a Dog’s diet should contain:

    raw meat (preferrably wild game)

    vegetables and plants (fermented is best as it mimics the foods state when it’s in the stomach of the dogs prey,which is where it gets its veggies and fruits…)

    wild berries or forrest fruits…

    fisch oil (there oppinions seperate, because dogs didn’t eat fish when they were in the forrest, but the omega3 ration is off in some meats of today so…)

    calcium i.e. raw bones are best

    liver from time to time for vitamin D

    that should do the trick…best is to rotate the meats and also feed snacks like air channels from animals or ears, legs, etc…

    Rob wrote on May 13th, 2010
  9. I love this post, it sounded like you were describing our dog. She is a mix, part Australian shepherd, and when we take her camping she becomes a hunter… refuses to touch her dog food, because she’s determined to catch something better. We take her hiking every weekend, and yes she covers at least 3-times the distance even though she stops and smells more ‘roses’.

    Having such an active dog is definitely good for our health. Chasing her and playing around is way more fun than the 5-10 km runs I used to do a few years ago.

    Zibi wrote on May 13th, 2010
  10. My two rescue dogs and I take a walk every day when it’s not raining. Our newest pooch can’t be trusted off leash yet. However I love watching her play in the yard. When she runs, she varies her running with bounding. It looks as if she is literally leaping with joy.

    They also enjoy a rousing game of chase. They will chase each other around obstacles in the yard going at top speed, ears flapping behind until exhausted.

    The youngest also likes to “tackle” the other dog when he is trying to “conduct business.”. Hilarious!! The joy they bring me has to be good for the old ticket.

    Slowe wrote on May 14th, 2010
  11. I have a 7 year old Bernese Mountain Dog. We’ve always had opportunities to trek through the bush in all seasons. He loves to run but now am noticing he’s a little slower pace during our run, and we don’t go as far. But he hasn’t lost the ability to dart off trail after a squirrel. This amazes me, just when I think his age is catching up with him (life span 7-10) he goes and gets all puppylike.

    kat wrote on May 16th, 2010
  12. JP wrote on July 23rd, 2010
  13. My two shelter-rescued coonhounds are very much interested in sprinting, then sniffing, then sprinting again. On the hills in Tennessee, this is often quite a workout in itself… (especially since I just started Primal living, and I’m still working my way back down to a healthy weight).

    Keith wrote on February 9th, 2011
  14. I used to be a 100% ONLY English Mastiff owner…then, my husband wanted to adopt a large american Pitbull.
    So off to the local shelter we went to rescue some lucky dog.
    Am I glad I gave in! This dog is THE best breed ever. Only thing that drives me nuts is he wants to say ‘hi’ to everyone and everyone’s dog…so darn happy, so darn friendly, ALL the time!

    Whatever happened to Pitbulls kill?! LOL

    His tail even wags during sleep…what a weirdo.

    Suvetar wrote on May 16th, 2011
  15. I love distance running. Long runs are great. You don’t know what you are talking about.

    Brody wrote on May 28th, 2011
  16. My dog is a magnificent specimen to behold. He’s lean, has great bone structure, and is incredibly well muscled. And it’s because he does primal fitness: 2 or 3 20-minute sprint sessions after a ball/week, and 45- to 60- minute walks on the other days. Yeah, I could learn a lot from him… but it’s so much easier to throw the ball than it is to sprint after it…

    Courtney wrote on September 18th, 2011
  17. A dog charged me recently. I was going to retrieve a briefly stashed bike from the fence lining the driveway of a house when she came out and questioned me about my position on her probably rented property. Her dog ran at me, making vicious noises, and when it was close enough to lunge and bite me I crouched down a bit with my left foot back and made fists, my right arm basically parallel to my trunk under chest level, and my left arm bent like an L, ready for punching the dog’s snout. I visualized a three punch combination. It was just inches from my right arm, which I shook slightly at it, and it whimpered and ran back into the house.
    That’s the third time I’ve been charged by a potentially dangerous dog that turned and ran back.
    I think most dogs are easy to out-bluff.
    The first time I ran away a few steps, spun in a left pivot, and threw a ~ one quarter / one third full water bottle at it, hitting an angsty dog by the spine.
    The second time I had a broken ankle and was on crutches so I warded it off by crouching and waving them in front of its face, blocking its path to me and a friend behind me.

    Animanarchy wrote on April 30th, 2013

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2016 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!